The biggest surprise is that Prigozhin survived for so long (2023)

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Embraer Legacy 600 had just taken off from an airfield near Moscow and turned northwest towards St Petersburg when it was struck.

The end was sudden.

This was no gradual engine trouble, no time for an emergency landing or an attempt to glide. Just an aircraft, falling like a stone from the overcast sky, rotating as it fell vertically towards the fields below.

“It exploded twice and now it’s falling. Look at it falling,” said one woman as she filmed the dark silhouette on its final plunge. Even before it hit the ground, there could be no question of survivors.

In retrospect, the most surprising thing about Prigozhin’s reported death is that he survived for so long.

Ever since he marched an army of disgruntled mercenaries on Moscow in June, Kremlin watchers have been wondering why on earth Vladimir Putin allowed his former caterer to remain alive – let alone at liberty.

So while in an ordinary air crash, it would be far too early to speculate about the causes, few will buy that this was really an accident.

Not two months to the day after the mutiny. Not with the aircraft falling like it had been shot down. Not with Prigozhin on board.

Even before the mutiny, one of the great mysteries of Russia’s war in Ukraine has been Putin’s tolerance for his loud mouthed, bombastic, and openly ambitious former caterer.

A “businessman” with a reputation for criminality and violence, Mr Prigozhin was never a high-ranking Kremlin insider, nor a member of the narrow circle of KGB men and judo partners from which Putin draws his closest friends.

He had long been a kind of Mr Fix It for the Kremlin – providing everything from mass catering solutions to a troll farm for influencing the 2016 US elections and an off-the-book mercenary outfit for deniable wars in Ukraine, Syria, Libya.

He was just one of a constellation of hangers-on who know Putin from his days in St Petersburg, and have done very well out of his presidency by making themselves useful to him.

By the time of the full scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, he was already notorious in the West as the sponsor of troll farms and head of Wagner and subject to Western sanctions. That didn’t stop him from hiring a British law firm, Discreet Law, to sue Bellingcat for its accurate reporting of his activities.

But something about the sheer scale of the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 seems to have gone to his head.

From the moment his Wagner fighters joined the fight – more than a month after the initial invasion – Prigozhin began to relish his public image as a warlord and a champion of the ordinary fighting man.

He immediately stopped denying his links to Wagner. The aggressive denials had all been a ruse, he admitted.

He himself was no soldier. For actual fighting expertise he relied on a circle of ex-military officers: Dmitry “Wagner” Utkin, Nikolai “Syedoi Troshev, Andrei “Briddyaga Bogatov, and Alexander “Ratibor” Kuznetsov” – all of them decorated career soldiers, mercenaries, and general dogs of war.

Nonetheless, Prigozhin found a fondness for wearing camouflage and carrying an assault rifle. And his swagger grew with his fighters’ successes.

In May 2022, Wagner’s veteran assault troops breached the Ukrainian defences at the town of Popasna. It was a crucial breakthrough that enabled the eventual Russian victory at Severodonetsk.

The next town in their path of advance was Bakhmut, and Prigozhin was determined that his men would take it. But it quickly became obvious that to do so, he would need more troops.

He was soon spotted flying helicopters into prison colonies to recruit convicts. It was an extraordinary privilege that had not even been offered to the regular army, and a sign of the enormous confidence Putin appeared to place in him.

Making full use of his credibility as a fellow ex-con (he spent most of the 1980s in Soviet prisons for assault and robbery), he promised criminals a chance at a new life – if they could survive six months in a Wagner assault company first.

“The war is tough,” he told prisoners in one video. “It’s nothing like the Chechen one. The rate of spent ammo is 2.5 times higher than at Stalingrad. The first sin is desertion. No one backs out, and no one retreats. If you change your minds we will shoot you.”

Many took the deal. Around 20,000 of them, by his own admission, died.

He carved himself a role as a rough-speaking truth-teller whose status as a civilian allowed him to call a spade a spade, and voice grumbles about ammunition shortages that enlisted officers could not.

The biggest surprise is that Prigozhin survived for so long (1)

While many pro-war nationalists would moan about the high command’s handling of the war anonymously on Telegram, Prigozhin would say it straight to the camera.

He was clearly enjoying the popularity. And it wasn’t difficult to see he was courting a powerful constituency Putin generally reserves for himself: the hardline, armed nationalists and working classes who make up the rank and file of the Russian war machine.

Kremlinologists were divided on what his game was.

He clearly had political ambitions – he had been reaching out to Just Russia, a centre-Left party that is one of three tame “opposition” factions the Kremlin allows to sit in the Duma – but most struggle to believe that he thought he could replace the president, or would be satisfied with a dry seat in Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament.

Perhaps he hoped to fill the vacancy left by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the late rabid leader of the so-called Liberal Democrats who the Kremlin used for years as a release valve for the angry, populist Right.

Some guessed he was after Sergei Shoigu’s job as minister of defence, which would explain his increasingly aggressive public attacks on the ministry and the high command. Perhaps he was just the public face of an anti-Shoigu faction, and he hoped a friend like General Sergei Surovikin, the head of the Russian aerospace forces, would get the job.

Whatever the motive, it became clear that Prigozhin was fighting in Bakhmut against the Russian defence ministry as much as the Ukrainian armed forces.

By February, with the battle already six months old, he was openly insinuating that Shoigu was a traitor working for the Ukrainians.

“Those who interfere with us trying to win this war are absolutely, directly working for the enemy”, he ranted in a video claiming the high command had given an order to starve his men of shells. He went on to swipe at officials “eating breakfast, lunch and dinner off golden plates” and sending their relatives on holiday to Dubai - a clear reference to Mr Shoigu’s daughter.

In May, he crossed another line in a rant about shell shortages leading to the deaths of Wagner fighters and added: “Happy grandpa thinks this is okay.” What if it turns out that grandpa is a complete d-----d?” he asked.

He quickly denied he was talking about Putin, suggesting instead “grandpa” was meant to be Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff. But the language raised eyebrows. He might not be mentioning the president yet, but he was edging closer to the greatest taboo of Russian politics.

That the situation had spiralled this far was largely Putin’s own fault.

He likes his underlings to feud – it keeps them busy and depending on him. The Russian dictator also has a notorious weakness for procrastination. He clearly left it far too late to intervene in this one.

But Mr Shoigu is a Kremlin insider and political survivor in an entirely different league. Perhaps too late, Prigozhin realised he had picked a fight he could not win.

On the evening of June 23, in an act of desperation, Prigozhin posted a video on Telegram. The army had betrayed Wagner, he claimed, bombing its main base in east Ukraine and killing thousands of its fighters. The only option left was a “march of justice”.

That night, Wagner troops, backed by tanks and air-defence systems forced their way across the border into Russia, marched into Rostov-on-Don, and surrounded the military base from which the Russian war in Ukraine is commanded.

Meanwhile, a second column rolled up the M4 Don motorway towards Moscow, downing Russian army helicopters that dared to interfere.

Prigozhin, dressed in full combat gear, said in a video message that he had hoped to capture Gen Gerasimov and Mr Shoigu, who he believed had been present at the headquarters.

The biggest surprise is that Prigozhin survived for so long (2)

This was no coup, he insisted. More a form of industrial action by loyal but mistreated employees who would like to renegotiate the terms of their employment.

If he thought Putin would buy that, he was mistaken.

The president was soon on television addressing the nation, declaring the rebellion an act of treason and promising harsh punishment for the perpetrators.

It was clear that only one of them could come out of this alive. And for a few hours, as the Wagner column cruised unopposed toward the capital and national guard units tried not to get involved, it looked like Putin might finally be finished.

Then, suddenly, it was over.

Prigozhin announced that he had made his point and the mutiny was cancelled. The column on the M4 turned around and went home.

Instead of arresting Prigozhin, a smiling Putin sat down with him in the Kremlin and invited him to a summit with African leaders in St Petersburg.

A deal was worked out that would let the mutineers move to Belarus and Prigozhin carry on working in Africa, a safe distance from Ukraine and Moscow.

It was utterly baffling. In the brutal world from which Putin and Prigozhin both hail, a challenge to the Tsar like the June 24 mutiny was inadmissible.

Putin, who had vowed to punish the rebels, looked weak and like he was inviting any other would-be kings to have a go.

Perhaps Prigozhin understood his days were numbered.

Sources close to him told Russian media that he had taken his private jets to confuse people – checking in for a flight but never getting on board, or flying with two at once so no one could tell which one he was in.

Two of his jets were airborne over Tver region on Wednesday night. The second landed unharmed at an airfield near Moscow an hour after the first was downed. The trick does not seem to have worked this time.

The biggest surprise is that Prigozhin survived for so long (3)

Two months to the day after Prigozhin launched his “march of justice,” his aircraft fell from the sky – apparently shot down by Russian air defences.

There will be no talk now of the Tsar being too weak to punish his rivals.

Prigozhin had genuine followers, and there will be some anger. One Telegram channel linked to Wagner called his reported killing the “work of traitors”.

But Putin will be feeling more secure than ever.

Prigozhin’s last public message was released on Monday evening.

Standing in a flat desert landscape and dressed in combat fatigues, he announced a new chapter of work in Africa and appealed for recruits.

The biggest surprise is that Prigozhin survived for so long (4)

“The temperature is plus 50 – everything as we like it. The Wagner PMC makes Russia even greater on all continents, and Africa – more free,” he said to the camera.

“Justice and happiness – for the African people, we’re making life a nightmare for ISIS and al Qaeda and other bandits,” he added.

Judging by past form, his adventure in Africa would have more murder and theft than justice and happiness. But it is over before it began.

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